"They're girls into kink, BDSM, fetishes, hairy legs, hairy armpits," Farrell proudly notes, rattling off the whole catalog of Lusty Lady types. Prince$$, who has danced at the club for 12 years, adds that it features performers of all races, ages, and sizes. It's always been a safe haven for the college hipster who wants to put herself through school, or the punk girl who prefers wearing a Mohawk, or the strident feminist who just wants to celebrate her body. Since dancers all earn the same hourly wage, they don't have to hustle to recoup a stage fee, Prince$$ says. Sure, the co-op model might stymie revenue, but it also promotes sisterhood — and in her mind, that's what counts. "It's about the sale," she explains. "It's not about who's selling."

But fair, cooperative business practices also begat disorganization. No one ever changed the carpet, Farrell notes, because everyone disagreed on what a new one should look like, and everyone had an equal say. "Six wanted blue, three wanted red, four wanted pink," he recalls. And bigger decisions languished even longer; Forbes says that when he offered the dancers discount rent, they'd take so long to reply that he'd change his mind in the interim.

But the club itself is an anachronism, and not just because of the Barbary Coast facade or the tawdry furnishings. Lusty Lady is, in fact, not a proper strip club at all; rather, it's an old-fashioned peep show. Patrons step into individual booths and pump dollars into a slot to view women behind a plexiglass wall. The booths form a horseshoe around a single stage, where two or three women dangle among Christmas lights and stripper poles. A dollar gets you about a minute of viewing time and a chance to goad one of the performers into a VIP session, also held behind glass.

Lusty Lady's co-op model meant all dancers are created equal, but made it tough to decide on everything from carpet color to acceptable rent.
Lusty Lady's co-op model meant all dancers are created equal, but made it tough to decide on everything from carpet color to acceptable rent.

That ritual alone seems redolent of the days when men watched pornography by depositing coins into old Mutoscope viewing machines and turned a hand-crank on the side. Even to a neophyte, the format seems ancient, solitary, and somewhat perfunctory. The conspicuous absence of a bar means no one need worry about a two-drink minimum, but it also means there's no place to clamor on the sidelines. It's not a venue to hold a bachelor party, or ogle at girls with your bros, or withdraw half your bank account in an alcohol-fueled splurge. Where most adult establishments provide a never-ending party, Forbes says, Lusty Lady's model does the opposite; it serves the workers, rather than the desired clientele. It doesn't cater to the fraternal aspects of strip clubs at all.

And, as a result, the business wilted. When the dancers unionized in 1997, and then formed a cooperative in 2003, they became torchbearers for progressive San Francisco. Lusty Lady's model seemed anathema to everything that strip clubs are about, and everyone rooted for it. Everyone, that is, except the people most likely to patronize strip clubs. The crowd that Lusty Lady drew was decidedly not a strip-club crowd; rather, it was full of Amherst College students writing term papers, or old people who want to avoid crowds altogether. Sean McClung, who's manned the club's desk for two years, says that while he'll occasionally see college frat boys, he'd pin the median patron age at 30 to 40 — or older. The men drifting in and out of Lusty Lady on a recent Thursday certainly fit that profile. A few wore business slacks and glasses; one came in a tie-dyed shirt. All of them were alone.

Apparently, that clientele isn't large enough, or loaded enough, to grease the wheels of business. On the eve of its closure, the Lusty Lady pulls an estimated $20,000 a week. Forbes believes the numbers are actually a lot lower. "I find that number very hard to believe," he says. "If you can't pay $16,000 a month in rent, what's wrong with you?"

He believes the Lusty Lady's peep show format is "a failed kind of business," because it provides few carrots to lure in customers. After all, there's little reason to leave the house when the Internet can provide plenty of live nude girls via webcam. Although Farrell planned to install webcams within Lusty Lady to make it more competitive, Forbes says that still wouldn't address a more fundamental problem. "In a regular strip club you can sit down and have a conversation," he explains. "They're two very different kinds of businesses." He says his other strip clubs are still prospering.

By late August, Farrell had conceded defeat, and most players at Lusty Lady were planning alternate career paths. Prince$$ wants to be a writer and sexologist in the vein of Carol Queen. McClung wants to finish his degree at Academy of Art College. Farrell plans to return to his previous job as a wallpaper-hanger, though he'd like to become a security guard — his dream job is to be a cop. He'd resigned himself to two more weeks as the Lusty Lady's official "management consultant," which was about as close as he could get to being owner, given both the co-op model and the fact that he's not on the lease.

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Jessica Tovar
Jessica Tovar

Forbe's is a douche he would have to degrade the co-op model in the process. SF isn't punk rock anymore.

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